June 16, 2016KR BlogBlogChatsEnthusiamsShort Takes/Mixed TapeWriting

Expecting Something Else: an interview with poet A.M. O’Malley

Like all great writers, A.M. O’Malley’s work defies easy categorization. She’s a poet who often writes prose; a memoirist who writes such evocative, lyrical passages that they can only be called poetry. Although widely known and respected in her home base of Portland, Oregon, O’Malley has yet to fully emerge onto the national scene. With the recent publication of her superb first full-length collection, Expecting Something Else, though, I’d surmise that anonymity will not be hers for much longer. I asked O’Malley about the circumstances of writing her first book, why she disdains words such as “experimental” and how to write (honestly) about a loved one without simultaneously alienating them and/or undermining that love.

I know that, across forms, you’ve been a writer for 10+ years and I guess I’m curious how you landed on publishing Expecting Something Else as your first full-length collection. What was its gestation exactly and how do you feel about it now that it’s fully out in the world?

I originally wrote an entire draft of ESE as a straightforward prose-memoir. However, I found that I wasn’t able to access some of the more surreal scenes and stories that were meant to be included. I am interested in writing into the fallibility of memory, especially in early childhood, and found that I was constrained by the necessity of fact driven truth-telling in memoir. I also wanted to switch up the point of view in some of the sections—which is also a memoir no-no. This could be a whole other conversation on the lack of an informed audience for memoir but I’ll just say that there was a natural progression into prose poem. I felt that I had freedom to tell true stories with a clear contract with the reader. I think that I could have tinkered with and changed this book forever, but I am happy with it in its final form—I love seeing it as an object and I think it achieves what I wanted.

Genre—the book is couched by your publisher as “a hybrid of narrative and lyricism” and you yourself have said that tagline words like “experimental” are to your mind “often equated with crap…” Since many of the poems in Expecting Something Else are non-linear prose poems, all sans standard punctuation, how did a “typical” poem in the book begin for you—and did that typicality change over the course of the collection’s writing?  

I started most of the poems as scenes or memories and then cut away a lot of the narrative and linear structure to reveal the most essential elements of experience through the senses and through the visceral part of memory. The punctuation went away as a last step to allow more interpretation—I think the lack of punctuation lends to a stream of consciousness quality that gets close to what memory feels like inside my head.  My editor, John Barrios, should take credit for dropping the punctuation—it was his crazy idea.

Is there a representative poem in the book that perhaps embodies a lot of your authorial aims? One that, in other words, sums up your predominant Expecting Something Else motivations or sentiments?

I was a cluster of cells a zygote a

would-be zeitgeist screwed into

her guts She had a tender mouth

an eye for Maiden’s Blush A

borrowed Dart just the two of us

There’s always someone who

wants to unmanifest things for

unmarried girls I was conjured on

a Mississippi party barge with Joe

Cocker records and a raft of

Southern Comfort on the rocks I

am here to say forgetting is to

gone-away like caboose is to late-

night train On the phone the nurse

said the clinic was unmarked that

she ought to look for a yellow

VW beetle Once I caught a

ladybug in my hands legs so small

they felt like whispers Maybe she

pulled in pulled off one mitten

Maybe she pressed the cigarette

lighter wanting smoke the burn of

something sure Hand on a

Winston mind on her baby brother

The size of his pinkie when he

was born I don’t know what she

said when she drove away My

ears not shelled enough to gather

sounds of that world

There are three long sequences that are shuffled together in the book and the first sequence is the seed that the book grew from. I had a title for one particular poem, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Something Else,” and it became the title of the entire sequence. The poem was the first time I took a story from my childhood—the story of how I was very close to being aborted—and gave it  a form and structure that offered a solution to the issues I’d been facing with the memoir form. BT Shaw is a friend and mentor of mine and she was the one who originally suggested both the title and the break from straightforward story telling. She and I workshopped this poem back and forth via email and it became a sort of template for the rest of the book.

I definitely think the lack of punctuation allows for more interpretation…as well as more of an unhinged, swiftly malleable memoiristic perspective. With that being said, if one of your goals for the book entailed having the “freedom to tell true stories with a clear contract with the reader,” I’m interested how the collage poems fit into that process—from the start did you know that you wanted a multi-disciplinary element for the collection? And how important or unimportant is collaging to your own writing?

AM collage

The collage poems are erasures from a book called My Mother/My Self by Nancy Friday—incidentally published the year I was born. All of those poems were created long after the rest of the book had already been accepted for publication and in the editing process. I had started making erasures every morning when I woke up as a sort of pallet cleanser for my next project—and I was drawn specifically to the text about mothers and realized that I wasn’t quite finished with the topic. It was then that I decided to add them to the collages to the book as a visual break—another way to get to the lyrical elements. It worked out well because I had been going back and forth with my editor about whether to include photographs—he wanted that visual element and I had been resisting so the erasures worked well.

Who were you reading while working on the book? Did their work possibly seep into Expecting Something Else in some direct or indirect way?

The book took a long time to write, but I am a deep admirer of Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Eileen Myles and Claudia Rankine—all of whom achieve what I want in terms of genre-bending and getting at the personal through means other than memoir.

I’ve asked this question to quite a few other poets before, but in curiosity’s interest I’ll ask it of you: do you have—or would you care to identify—favorite words you return to again and again in your work? Words that you like, for whatever reason. I asked the same thing to Eileen Myles before and she hates and won’t use the word “shard”—too stereotypically poetic—and likes and often employs “you” and “dog.” Michael Earl Craig stated that he’s not fond of “snack” or “moist” but goes wild with “little,” “tiny,”  “violently,”  “briskly” and  “slowly.”  . Are there words, then, that you come back to again and again? Any words that you revile and won’t deign to write or type down?

What a great question! There are a lot of words that are connected to the body in this book, words like “spit” and “fingers” that come up again and again. As I was raised Catholic, I also like to write with religious words; “blasphemy” and “purgatory” are favorites. I wrote an entire section around the secondary definition of the word “elope,” so that word is in the book a ton too. The “to be avoided” words that come immediately to mind are “heart,” “moon,” and “flicker.”

I relish the discrepancy—your book was published by the University of Hell Press and you were raised Catholic and regularly utilize Catholic words and imagery in your work. That’s amazing. Two final questions—Expecting Something Else is, essentially, about your upbringing and your mother’s role within that turmoil. In another recent interview you also recently stated that your mom “doesn’t know about the book” and that you “can’t imagine [your] own child growing up and writing a fucking book about [you].” And so I guess my question is—why? Do you think the book is overly indicting? Or? And do you foresee a period in the near or far future when you will tell your mother about Expecting Something Else?

I did send her the book, after that interview. She hasn’t said much to me about it except to say that she is proud of me. I didn’t share the manuscript with her before publication because I wanted it to be complete before I let her read it—not because it’s overly indicting but because it’s difficult not to get bogged down when writing about other people about what they might think. I’ve been written about and always find it difficult—mostly because it’s someone else’s view of you and it’s hard not to feel flattened out into a two-dimensional object.

What are you working on now/next? And any plans on touring Expecting Something Else at either a regional or national level? 

I’ve written another book—it’s a book-length epistolary to my brother—and I’m sending it out for consideration now. I’m also working on a collaborative project with my friend Grant Gerald Miller—we’re doing English to English translations of each other’s poems around the theme of our multiple selves. As for Expecting Something Else, I have some plans to tour a bit in the upper Midwest—in my home state of Minnesota—and will be reading a lot more in Portland in the next year.

Read more of O’Malley’s work here and find her on the interwebs here.